Wildcat senior Emma Handlos loves to watch other runners at the River Falls Extreme Cross Country Meet.
"It's kind of fun to watch them wipe out," she said. "They just kind of face plant and you're like, 'Oh, yeah, there's a hole there.'"
Started by former Wildcat coach Rick Cleary over 15 years ago, the Extreme Meet is a 5,000-meter race consisting of two laps, starting and ending on the UW-River Falls intramural fields that takes runners through and across the South Fork of the Kinnickinnic River and up and down increasingly muddy trails.
"The runners cross and run through the Kinni six times during the race," Wildcat head coach Kari DeLuca noted. "This make for a lot of mud and muck on the course. It just feels like true cross country. When runners cross the finish line they are dripping wet and full of mud."
And make no mistake about it; the kids love it.
"It's awesome actually," River Falls junior Rav Veness said. "It's the best first meet because it's kind of like a scrimmage so it's just a mud run; it's fun. You just throw an old pair of shoes on and just go."
Junior Elsa Putzier said the meet a perfect way to kick off the season.
"It's a great meet," she said. "It's a nonstressful meet, so I enjoy just having fun. And it's a great way to get back in shape."
And it's not just the River Falls runners who enjoy it.
"I often have athletes from other teams come up to me and tell me the Extreme Meet is their favorite meet of the season," DeLica said.
The course gets so muddy the Wildcats chose not to wear their new jerseys this year. The girls designed their own tye-dye T-shirts for the event while the each boy wore whatever he wanted.
The meet has become so popular over the years that DeLuca added a Spectator Race this season, allowing anyone brave enough to run the course after the high school races were completed. She said it was a big hit, with 21 people taking part, and hopes to continue it next year as well.
"It was fun to see people just jump in and experience what our cross country team experiences," she said. "We had parents and family members of the cross-country team, a few high school wrestlers showed up and ran in their singlets, a few middle school cross-country runners ran, and then even some spectators from the opposing teams ran it as well. It was awesome; they all got to experience what the cross country team goes through during the race."
Even though the Extreme Meet is fun and different, DeLuca said it's an incredibly challenging course.
"Running through the cold water and mud add an extra element of difficulty to an already tough sport," she noted. "I found that out myself when I hopped in the spectator race. It takes your legs a bit of time to find their pace again after you climb out of the cold water of the Kinni."
Handlos, who finished 11th overall in the girls' varsity race, wholeheartedly agreed.
"You really have to have leg strength because you have to be able to get through the water," she said. "The water is the biggest obstacle."
DeLuca said the athletes are never proud of their times in the Extreme Meet since the water and mud slow them down, but she had nothing but praise for sophomore Mason Shea for winning the boys' race with a time of 21 minutes, 1 second.
"That was obviously very awesome," she said. "We haven't had a male winner from River Falls in a few years."
The Wildcats boys finished second out of six teams, despite missing two of their top runners due to injury. In addition to Shea's first place time, Veness finished eighth and senior Ben Rayne placed ninth with identical times of 22:06.
"Mason Shea, Ben Rayne, and Rav Veness really stepped up to help us take second," DeLuca said. "I am excited to see what these boys can do this season. I think we are going to surprise people."
Handlos was the Wildcat girls top finisher with an 11th place time of 25:51 and sophomore Hayley Lindman was right behind in 12th place in 26:00 while Putzier finished 16th in 26:22. The Cats placed fourth out of eight teams in the girls' race. But like Putzier said, it's not really about the competition.
"You don't have to worry about doing your best," she said. "It's just about having fun and getting back you back into the season. I like it a lot."
The Wildcats will get their first chance to wear their new jerseys and run on dry land when they compete at the Menomonie Invitational Saturday, Sept. 9.